The Environment Bill is how the government can cement its green ambitions long term

The environment is dominating the airwaves with numerous policy consultations, announcements and debate. But green ambitions and rhetoric must be anchored in law to propel action when all the noise quietens down or future political leaders waiver.

The government has a chance to do this in its flagship Environment Bill, which returns to the House of Commons for further debate today. Dedicated environment bills are rare and don’t come around very often. They set the direction of travel for decades and, unless we get this one right, it will be much harder to tackle the nature and climate crisis at a time when every action counts.

The stakes could not be higher as we approach one of the most important international environmental negotiations of our lifetime, which starts in just over a week in Glasgow. With plummeting biodiversity and shocking pollution incidents happening right now, strengthening the Environment Bill should be at the top of the government’s ‘to do’ list, instead of languishing in the ‘leave until later’ box.

This legislation is long overdue
The Environment Bill is a much anticipated panoply of green laws, which are long overdue. It was first mooted in 2017, announced by Theresa May in 2018, followed by three gruelling years of parliamentary scrutiny and debate.

The good news is that it is nearing the end of its parliamentary journey and should become law before Christmas. What is not good news is that the government is holding out on a number of important issues and appears unwilling to compromise.

For the bill to meet the exacting tests the government has set itself: no weakening of existing standards; world leading laws; and to have the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on earth, ministers and their advisers must now reach into their hearts and find the spirit and the will to compromise. Toughing it out on concessions is not what our environment needs at this critical time.

The government has made some improvements since the bill was first announced, for example it added the welcome 2030 target to halt biodiversity decline by 2030. But, still, there are big ticket issues that remain unresolved since they were first identified by stakeholders and expert select committees in 2019.

Intransigence on the green watchdog is holding the bill back
At the core of the bill is the new watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP). Ministers continue to defend their right to appoint its board and budget, and to ‘guide’ how it holds them to account. It is clearly unacceptable to subject the protection of our environment over the long term, for all of us, to the vagaries of political whim. Without a change of mindset, the OEP will be hampered from the start by a government unwilling to give it the freedom to do its job effectively. Given it was intended to be a “world leading body to give the environment a voice and hold the powerful to account”, affording the OEP discretion to exercise its functions should be incontestable.

As parliamentarians have said, if we get one thing right in the bill it must be the OEP. But, instead of freedom, the government is giving itself carte blanche to guide the watchdog’s enforcement work. As Lord Krebs said “…the arrangement is rather like having a whistleblower who is told by the boss which areas he or she is not allowed to investigate”.

Another major sticking point is what happens when the OEP refers a public authority to the court because there has been a serious breach of environmental law. The bill rigs the enforcement system so that the interests of developers are placed above the environment in every instance, preventing the court from remedying serious breaches of environmental law.

If the government does not remove this restriction, it will undermine the OEP’s intended mode of operation. OEP chair designate and experienced regulator, Dame Glenys Stacey, has described to MPs the “…standard regulatory approach of a cup of tea together, but a stick is in the cupboard, and everyone knows that stick is there, and it will come out if needs be.” If the bill remains unchanged, Dame Glenys will find her cupboard bare when she searches for that stick, rendering the new environmental enforcement system toothless.

Greening government can only happen across the board
The bill contains five environmental principles which yesterday’s Net zero strategy recognises as needed to embed net zero in government decisions. There is a huge catch though. Massive swathes of government policy will be exempt from these principles, including the fiscal policy that will make or break the plan. To compound this, the Ministry of Defence has negotiated a get out clause for its policy making. What message does this send to other government departments, let alone the public? Previous governments have pledged to put the environment at the heart of policy making and failed. It remains to be seen if this government will be the one to keep that promise.

It’s not too late to tackle these shortcomings. Today, MPs kick off what looks set to be an extended negotiation, where the two Houses of Parliament pass amendments back and forth and attempt to reach a compromise. The Lords will pick up the baton next Tuesday with further debate.

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